February 23, 2020

Sharansky applauds ‘One Kotel for One People’

In the wake of the Israeli government’s historic announcement on Sunday, Jan. 31, that a new, expanded egalitarian prayer space would be opened up at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, spoke to the press from Pasadena.  The new section could take two years to create, but will reportedly accommodate as many as 1,200 people and will be accessible through the Wall’s main plaza for use by all genders and denominations together. Previously, the Kotel – the Hebrew name for the Western Wall – was run under Orthodox rule and had allowed only for separate prayer spaces for men and women. It also did not allow women to read from Torah or wear tallits. The existing Orthodox sections will remain in place.

“In terms of human rights and the Jewish people,” Sharansky said Sunday, “it is the right thing to do.”

Sharansky said the Wall controversy has underscored one of the biggest “internal” problems facing Israel today – the tension between Israel’s and the Diaspora’s definition of who is a Jew, with the fight over the wall serving as “the most visual example of” this.

Israel cares about the viewpoint of Diaspora Jewry, he said, because American Jews, for one, have played a critical role in combating the “de-legitimization of the State of Israel.” At the same time, he said, many Diaspora Jews see Israel as a source of their “Jewish identity.”

Sharansky was appointed three years ago by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come up with a solution to the pressure to open up Judaism’s holiest site. At the press conference Sunday, Sharansky praised the Israeli Cabinet’s 15-5 vote to approve the new non-Orthodox prayer space, saying the vote helps achieve “one Kotel for one people,” using the Hebrew name for the ancient site believed to be a wall of the Holy Temple. He added that he had been awake at 3:30 a.m. speaking to Israeli officials through Skype about the vote.

Years of debate led up to the vote, as well as multiple confrontations, sometimes violent, between Charedi Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox, especially a reformist group of women known as the Women of the Wall (WOW). Previously prayer at the wall was divided into a large area for men only, and a smaller one for women. In 2012, WOW leader Anat Hoffman was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl and participating in a women’s service at the Kotel. In April 2013, talks began for an egalitarian area located in an archaeological park known as Robinson’s Arch, outside the central plaza, raising objections from those wishing the egalitarian area to be a part of the larger public plaza.

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, in Pasadena, speaks to the press about the announcement of a new egalitarian space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Jan. 31. Photo by Ryan Torok

Sharansky told the media Sunday that as women were coming in “increasing numbers” and being “arrested, dragged and pushed…the Prime Minister called me and said he can’t accept how the Kotel has become a center of division.” Sharansky added, “And then was the first time he said the phrase which everybody uses as their own: ‘I want to see one Kotel for one people,’” Sharansky said.

“And he asked me, because I am the chairman of the Jewish Agency, which is a body where all the elements sit together, and because I was involved all my life in the dialogue between Jews of the Diaspora and Jews of Israel, he asked me to check with all the sides about what are the conditions with which they can start serious negotiations.” That conversation eventually led to Sunday’s historic vote.

The Consulate General of Israel, Los Angeles, convened Sunday’s press conference with the cooperation of Limmud FSU, which was holding a three-day gathering for Jewish learning of mostly Russians in Pasadena, hosting Sharansky as one of its leading speakers. Sharansky is traveling in the United States to make appearances talking about Israel at college campuses alongside actor Michael Douglas—the two are set to appear Feb. 3 at UC Santa Barbara.

North American Jewish leaders are praising the vote to create the new arena. “We applaud Israel’s historic decision to create a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The Cabinet’s approval Sunday of the new space is a dramatic, unprecedented and critical acknowledgement by the State of Israel that Judaism’s holiest site — the Kotel — should incorporate the traditions of the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform streams, in which men and women pray together,” said a statement issued Sunday by The Jewish Federations of North America said.

The Orthodox section of the wall will remain under Charedi control, but the new permanent, additional space will be overseen by the Reform and Conservative movements, allowing women the full right, as men have, to read from the Torah, wear tallits, and pray alongside men who wish to be in that space with women. Bar and bat mitzvahs will also be able to take place in the new egalitarian space.

Sharansky said he worked on the issue with the Women of the Wall (WOW), including with Hoffman, who has been a leader in the fight for religious pluralism in Israel.

Sharansky said Hoffman has shown “great leadership.” Netanyahu was interested in finding a solution satisfying to both sides, Sharansky said.

Maya Kadosh, consul for public diplomacy and culture at the Consulate General of Israel, Los Angeles, said she welcomed the vote by the Israeli Cabinet.

“All the partners here [the Israeli cabinet members, the Jewish Agency for Israel and others] came together, so people will see the Jewish people is trying to be united on an issue,” she said in an interview. “I’m really glad it’s happening.”